Pavel Kohout, a leading Czechoslovak playwright, who had a highly accalimed play on Broadway last month, is caught up in a terrifying real-life drama here in his native country.
Kohout and 300 other Czechoslovak citizens have signed and sent of the West a firmly worded manifesto callled Charter 77, demanding that their government live up to the human rights provisions of the Helsinki agreement, the U.N. Human Rights Resolution and the Czechoslovak constitution itself.
As a result of this move, there is a feeling of tension here greater than at any time since the Soviet-led invasion that toppled the brief liberal Communist rule of Alexander Dubcek in 1968.
Typical of thegovernment of the signers are the pressure faced by Kohout. When I visited him, a police car was parked in front of his apartment and two uniformed officers had just informed him that he would have to give up his car "for inspection," a loss imposed on other signers.
Kohout's phone like those of virtually all other well-known signatories, does not work anymore. Even the pay phone a few feet from his apartment building does not work.
When he goes out, plain-clothed police in three or four Skoda or Tatra cars follow him constantly, just as they followed me virtually all of my five-day visit to Prague.
Kohout calls it psychological warfare a war of nerves a jump back to the 19th Century in which people are supposed to be intimidated by keeping them at home with no transport or communication.
In one of the few acts of physical violence seen here, Mrs. Kohout was pulled by the hair into a police car 10 days ago when the couple was brought for questioning.
Kohout, who asked not to be quoted directly, bristled when it was suggested he and his fellow signers might be called dissidents. He said he did not know of anyone of the Charter 77 group who fits the classical definition of dissident.
They are people, he said, who are mostly socialist and Communists and who want to discuss human rights. They are not prepared to physically fight against an ideology but they are prepared to discuss how to realize it.
According to Gustav Smid, deputy head of the press department of the Foreign Ministry, the government's critics " do not represent anybody in Czechoslvakia. They are interested only in destruction and in hampering development of relations with other Western countries.
Smid said: "We know pretty well that these people are directed from Western countries. They are very much need here for Western propaganda. Look at Alexander Solzhenitsyn (the exiled Soviet writer). Now we don't hear so much publicity about him. His value was in Russia. When they are in the Western countries, noboyd listens to them."
When it was first published weeks ago, the manifesto drew little attention, both in the West and even from the Prague government. It was not published here.
Yet in the days since, a cascading series of actions has propelled the charter and the fate of its signatories into international prominence and has produced a bitter dilemma for the tightly controlled. Moscow-dominated government of President and Communist Party leader Gustav Husak.
The government fell into what many people here view as a trap by calling for denuciations of a charter that few, here had seen. Then a score of prominent Czechoslovak intellectuals were taken in for interrogation. Four were arrested and charged with serious crimes against the state.
Communist parties in Western Europe began denouncing the crackdown. Appeals for pressure from the outside by Kohout and others have brought statements of support by Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kresiky, West Germany's Willy Brandt, and now a group of Hungarian Communist intellectuals.
A clerk here sheepishly admits that no copy of the British Communist Party newspaper Morning Star is available here because there is something in it Czechoslovaks are not supposed to read.
The paper's editorial in Jan. 19 called for and end to the harassment of charter signatories and for free debate on the views it expressed.
Meanwhile, public curiosity about the charter is clearly growing here. Some information has become available, fed mostly by reports on West German and Austrian radio and television.
Kohout did not write the charter, but he signed it because, he says he viewed it as an attempt to start a dialogue between government and those who feel they have lost rights guaranteed them by law and such things as the Helsinki agreement.
Kohout says he is not a politician and has no ambition beyond writing. He adde, however, that as a citizen he feels he has a right to express his feelings.
The Charter 77 group is not a political organization, it is not a movement, he says. It is only a charter, he stresses.
This is a crucial point, for Czechoslovak civil rights activists are trying to emphasize that they are not trying to form a political opposition or overthrow a government. Just how much the government believes this could affect the future safety of the signers.
The signers are not men of the underground, Kohout says.
He says he is not afraid for himself because he is young and healthy but that for some of the older activities the harassment could be dangerous.
Kohout seems genuinely uneasy answering questions about hiw own situation. He is not a man who is crying, he says, or discussing his personal problems with everybody for publicity. But he adds, it is a very human situation for the signers and he is not in the worst situation.
The ones who are, are the ones in jail, he says, Kohout fears for his friend Vaclav Havel, 40, whom he considers the country's most imprtant dramatist and whose plays, including "The Garden Party," are also well known in the West.
Havel is in Ruzyne Prison and his wife says she has had trouble getting a lawyer for him and that he will probably be in that prison for two weeks before he has a first meeting with a lawyer.
While his group wants a discussion on rights with the governmet, Kohout says, the only talks have been with the police. The Husak government has made clear that there will be no dialogue with what are viewed as subversive pamphleteers, sellouts to the West bent only on stirring up dissent 1947 and 1959, feels that eventually - Communist between 1947 and 1959, feels that eventually - 10 or 20 years from now - an improved form of socialism will come, no matter what happens today or next week. He does not like to call it the more liberal Italian-style Euro-communism or anything else, but feels that, like Western capitalism, there will be no one socialist model that will suffice for all countries.
The charter, he says, was an attempt to make socialism as good as possible for those people who think realistically about the future.
Kohout lives reasonably well hereby local standards on his royalties, which have also made him game for being portrayed as a wealthy and faithful servant of imperialism.
Until last year, he was permitted to travel to Austria, Switzerland and West Germany to witness the openings of his plays. Then, however, when asked to accept an invitation to go to New York to see a production of his "Poor Murderers," which played until three weeks ago on Broadway, the authorities suggested he go for at least two years. In other words, they wanted him to go for good.
Kohout declined, writing a letter to theNew York Post in which he said he would not abandon people of real flesh and blood for the sake of characters created on paper.
He also wrote, in an allusion to the Helsinki agreement, that the wondered why so many men go on pompously signing documents which they are unwilling to back up.
The apparent offer of exile to Kohout appears to fall into line with a spreading pattern of dealing with critics throughout Communist bloc, especially East Germany and the Soviet Union.